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When she first became a chemist, Mary B. Nakhleh would never have guessed that her listening skills would be her most important asset.
Nakhleh has made her name as a chemistry education researcher using intensive interviews to illuminate how students and the general public understand the microscopic world.
She’s learned that students of all ages can think they understand a scientific concept and can even use the right words to describe it. But it’s only when students can draw the concept that educators can be sure their pupils truly grasp the material.
“Students, especially at the college level, get very good at using language, and it sounds good. Until you ask them to draw what they mean, then they get very nervous about it,” says Nakhleh, who recently retired as an associate professor of chemistry at Purdue University. Her career has shown that as a chemistry educator, “you have to be aware of students’ misconceptions and you really have to work to overcome them.”
Nakhleh’s work has led to “seminal accomplishments in our understanding of students’ mental models of matter and insightful integration of technological tools in instruction,” says Barbara L. Gonzalez, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at California State University, Fullerton, who has followed Nakhleh’s work for years.
Nakhleh learned about atoms and molecules in eighth grade and has been hooked on chemistry ever since. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Georgia in 1961 and then worked in industry for several years.
A move to rural northern Maryland with her husband started Nakhleh on the road from chemist to chemistry education researcher. There weren’t any jobs for chemists nearby, so she started teaching middle school and, later, high school science.
But Nakhleh had always dreamed of having a doctoral degree, so in the early 1980s she went back to school, this time in science education.
For her master’s degree research at the University of Maryland, College Park, she designed a sensor program that made it easier for students to use computers in chemistry labs. Seeing students struggle with misunderstandings in the labs motivated her to explore the learning process for her Ph.D. work.
Nakhleh constructed an intensive interview to find out what students knew about acids and bases at the molecular level. She quickly found that students—despite the teachers’ or professors’ efforts—didn’t understand the underlying concepts. For example, when an educator said “strong” he or she didn’t mean powerful, but that was how the students interpreted the word.
That work formed the basis for Nakhleh’s 20-year career at Purdue. One of her main areas of research focused on interviewing preschoolers up to adults on fundamental chemistry concepts and then identifying common misconceptions.
“One thing I have tried to instill in my student teachers is that you cannot be arrogant with learners. You should assume that everyone, you included, has misconceptions,” she says. “You have to be a good listener to identify when their understanding is not quite right.”
Nakhleh retired at the end of 2011 and is taking a year off to relax. But she suspects she’ll be back using that same interview again soon.
She will deliver her award address before the ACS Division of Chemical Education.